Medical supplies and sanitary equipment have been scarce since the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, and now health care workers also face shortages of life-saving ventilator machines for ill patients.

The New York Times reports that hospitals are having trouble procuring enough ventilators to match the influx of new patients. Medical ventilators are machines that facilitate breathing for critically ill patients and, as the Times explains, “can be the difference between life and death for those facing the most dire respiratory effects of the coronavirus.”

A lack of ventilators for COVID-19 patients is particularly troubling given the nature of the virus. The coronavirus is a respiratory illness that is thought to spread mainly through person-to-person contact, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

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According to the Times, hospitals across the U.S. have about 160,000 ventilators, and there are an additional 12,700 held in the National Strategic Stockpile, in case of emergencies. If the case count continues to escalate, doctors do not expect to have enough ventilators for every sick patient. 

“In a worst-case scenario it would be very difficult to have a sufficient number,” Thomas R. Frieden, the former director of the CDC during the Obama administration, told reporters.

Other health care professionals express similar concerns. In a letter sent Tuesday to Vice President Pence, Dr. James Madara, the CEO and executive vice president of the American Medical Association, expressed his concern regarding medical supply shortages like masks and ventilators. 

The supply deficit is further complicated by the fact that about half of the ventilators in U.S. intensive care units (ICUs) are imported from foreign companies, namely German company Dräger and Swedish company Getinge.

European countries, dealing with their own coronavirus crises and shortages, are reportedly prohibiting companies from exporting ventilators abroad. 

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Regarding U.S. companies that manufacture ventilators, some are optimistic about increased production. Speaking to Forbes, Chris Kiple, the chief executive officer of Ventec Life Systems which makes ventilators, says that with the right tweaks on the company’s supply chain they can create more machines. 

“We could increase production five-fold in a 90- to 120-day period,Kiple told Forbes. He also told the New York Times that order requests from hospital staff and state governments have skyrocketed for days.

Other manufacturers are not as optimistic, however. Speaking to the Times, Allied Healthcare Products Chief Executive Officer and Director Earl Refsland says speeding up production won’t happen in the necessary timeframe. Refsland said that his company produces around 1,000 ventilators annually, and that it would be at least eight months to increase production.

Doctors fear that this scarcity will force them to make difficult decisions regarding which patients need the remaining ventilators more so than others. 

To avoid this situation, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act of 1950 on Wednesday, which would federally mandate the manufacturing of critical items needed for a national emergency. This includes personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves and sanitary gowns. 

Reports say that N95 masks are a top concern for health care workers since they filter out approximately 95 percent of airborne virus particles. According to CNN, President Trump told reporters Wednesday that 1 million masks will be readily available immediately and that officials plan to distribute "up to 2,000 operational deployable ventilators for use as needed."

Published on Mar 18, 2020